Paniolo Cowboys of Hawaii

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With the newly expanding American West came many new lands and adventures. One of the new ventures was in the Hawaiian Islands where Captain George Vancouver gifted cattle to the King of Hawaii Kamehameha I in 1793, introducing a new livestock to the islands and beginning a very long history of cowboys, ranches, and cattle trading in a tropical paradise. Vancouver advised Kamehameha I to put a Kapu, or a protective order, on the cattle for 10 years to allow them to breed and grow the herd for a better meat harvest.

This Kapu ended in 1830 during the rule of Kamehameha III, and the amount of cattle was so abundant that they became a problem. The overabundance of cattle began to destroy the agricultural lands that people were living off of, and hunting wild cattle was strongly encouraged to help lower the population of bovine. By the mid-1840s about 25 thousand cattle roamed wild on the islands with an extra 10 thousand semi-domesticated living along side the islanders.

While Cattle were the largest animals introduced to the islands, they were not the only ones during this time. In 1778, Captain James Cook left goats and pigs with the native Hawaiians, in the 1790s the British introduced sheep to the islands, and in 1803 an American names Richard Cleveland presented horses to Kamehameha I.

The new animals on the island made way for new industry, but it was an industry that the natives had no existing knowledge about. Kamehameha III was aware of this problem and reached out, first to bullock hunters from overseas to help control the massive cattle population that was ruining their agricultural society, and then to the Mexican Vaqueros in California to help develop the ranching operations on the island.

In 1832, Kamehameha III sent one of his chiefs to California to employ the help of 3 Spanish-Mexican vaqueros named Kossuth, Louzeida, and Ramon to break the horses into working animals and to roundup and handle the massive herds of cattle. Kossuth, Louzeida, and Ramon also taught the natives how to break the horses, and the tricks of the trade creating the Hawaiian cowboy, or the Paniolo.

Other than ranching skills, the vaqueros also taught the Hawaiians how to play guitar. Since the Hawaiians started their ranching operations before the Pacific Northwest in 1846, and California and Texas in 1848, their traditions stemmed strongly from the Mexican Vaqueros who originally stemmed from Spain.

The word “Paniolo” is thought to be a derivative from the Spanish word “Española” meaning person from Spain or a shortened word for the language that the vaqueros spoke, español. This word came about to describe the new breed of Hawaiian cowboys that needed to adapt the vaqueros’ style of cattle roundup to their tropical climate and terrain.

The paniolos would have to develop new methods of moving cattle for shipment to overcome the problem of shallow bays and harbors to get the cattle to the shipment freighters that would take them to the meat processing plant in Honolulu on the island of Oahu or to a different ending destination for trade. They had to teach the cattle not to fear the water so they could be led from the beaches to the water and through the rough waves where they met the paddleboats that would tie the cattle heads to the sides of the boats and row back out to the ships to be taken off for trade.

This practice was very unique to the paniolos until industrial innovations that made it easier to put the cattle on the ships. The need for innovations like this created a very unique culture around the paniolos.

Waimea, Hawai’i is the birthplace to paniolos and the Hawaiian ranching lifestyle. Waimea is located on the north side of the Big Island and is home to the Parker Ranch along with a few other ranches that came about with the first introduction of cattle. During the rule of Kamehameha II, many Hawaiian chiefs and even the royal family accrued copious amounts of debt from buying alcohol and fancy goods from the Europeans and Americans.

In 1826, a naval commander named Thomas ap Catesby Jones advised the Hawaiian government to pay the debts of the chiefs and royals racked up during the sandalwood trade, but they did not listen. Soon a group of merchants led by John Coffin Jones claimed that the Hawaiians owed them 500 thousand dollars and Commander Jones lowered the number to 200 thousand and then began negotiations with the new king. In 1827, the first written law of Hawaii was a law stating that a quota of sandalwood must be delivered to the government to help settle these debts.

Among the first ranches in Hawaii was the Parker Ranch, owned and ran by John Palmer Parker originally from Massachusetts. He went to visit the Hawaiian Islands in 1809 when he was only 19 years old and left the island during the war of 1812, but returned to make his own living and created a legacy. Parker was close to King Kamehameha I before he left, and brought back a new state-of-the-art American musket so the king gave Parker permission to hunt the wild cattle to provide meat and hides for local and foreign consumption.

In no longer than a year, the cattle industry for salted beef, tallow, and hide took over as the island’s chief export, replacing sandalwood. Parker remained close friends with the king and went on to marry his granddaughter, Chiefess Kipikane. Together they had 3 children and created the legacy that is Parker Ranch, which can still be visited today and is still being run by descendants of the Parker family and ohana made up from other paniolos from China, Korea, Portugal, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the United States, and Europe.

Ranches, like the Hawaiian plantations, often were heavily dependent on immigrant labor and created specialized work communities. These communities had the paniolos that would work on the ranch, and in turn would also be provided living quarters for their families so they could work and earn a wage while staying on the ranch. These communities were similar to the work camps formed in the American west around the same time.

“Paniolo” originally identified the Hispanic origins of the vaqueros that came to teach the Hawaiians how to ranch, but soon transformed into a connotation meaning “cowboy”. It shifted back and forth between an ethnic description and an occupation, until today where it usually implies a cowboy of Hawaiian decent. The paniolos were not a brand-new culture, but a meshing of cultures, which threw off the idea of settler colonialism.

The paniolos that worked on and made up Parker ranch went on to become very well recognized in the cowboy and ranching communities, even competing in the Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming where Archie Ka’aua, Jack Low (John Palmer Parker’s great-grandson and brother of Eben Low) , and Ikua Purdy from near-by Pu’uwa’awa’a Ranch, owned by Eben “Rawhide Ben” Low, stunned the competition and the onlookers with their great mastery of the trade.

The paniolos impressed in the competition coming in first, second, and sixth in the world championship finals against the American cowboys. The paniolos were very different from the American cowboys, and developed their skills in a very different terrain isolated from the American cowboy’s influence, but they had no problem proving their worth in the long run. In 1999, Ikua Purdy was voted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, and was the first inductee to the Paniolo Hall of Fame established be the Oahu Cattleman’s Association.

While the paniolos gained recognition for their mounting success in ranching skills, the islands of Hawaii were changing into something very new. The new livestock on the land required new food, that was not native to the islands, to be planted to feed their new chief export. While parts of the islands receive abundances of rainfall, other part of the island receive lower averages because of the trade winds and mountains.

Since the islands of Hawaii are also volcanos, they have soils ranging in all 10 orders of the USDA’s soil classification series, from very acidic on the wetter windward side of the islands, to very alkaline on the leeward sides. This makes cultivating food for livestock a challenge because planting non-native flora species is more difficult, and cannot be planted anywhere to flourish. After the introduction of cattle to the islands with a Kapu for them to multiply, the lands took a huge burden in providing food for the new animals.

The number of cattle grew so much that the agricultural lands of the native people began to suffer when the cattle would intrude and eat gardens and farms. The native vegetation was no prepared for the introduction of such a large population of new fauna. Since then, over 90% of the vegetation below 1,500 feet elevation is not native to the islands but are recent introductions to Hawaii, and the few native species that are left are in relic or inaccessible areas of the islands.

As stated earlier, the Mexican vaqueros introduced the guitar to the paniolos, and this music became a very important part of the paniolo lifestyle. Unlike the American cowboys that did cattle drives across large stretches of land, the paniolos only took care of the cattle on their ranch and did not venture too far from home. Music was a way to relax and unwind after a long day of work. It added a happy note to celebrating and gatherings, and relieved the loneliness on the remote parts of the ranches that overlooked vast areas of land.

The vaqueros brought the guitar to Hawaii, and later in 1879, Portuguese immigrants brought a branguiha, or machete, which the Hawaiians developed into the iconic ‘ukulele. The Hawaiians developed a unique guitar style called kiho’alu or slack-key. Kiho’alu actually translates to “loosen the key” and is a very mellow style of music that usually compliments the sounds of the island rather than covering them or over powering them.

Daily life in a ranch camp for the paniolos and their families was very diverse, and unique. The Parker Ranch employed close to 200 people at one point, and was the largest employer of the area. Before radio and television, the only entertainment the people in these communities had access to was each other. They had 4 general stores, and life was very primitive. Kids made up their own games, and they looked forward to going to school because that was the main place, they would see their peers.

Generally, families would live poor lives and stretch their penny as far as they could and then a little more. At Parker Ranch, the Parkers were very generous and paternalistic and took care of their ohana. The Parker Ranch would provide free meat to their workers, which helped their livelihoods. The free meat was very important because it meant there was always some food to be had. The local school only went up to sixth grade, then they would have to travel to continue their education, so after the children got as much of an education as they could, they would go to work on a farm or on the ranch to help their families.

Everyday, no matter the weather, the people who worked on the ranch would walk a mile from their house to the ranch office to check in then work all day, check out and walk another mile to get home. Ranch life was generally easy because they adapted along with technological advances, but the hardest part was traveling to and from work. Eventually the Parker Ranch not only produced beef but also had a dairy on the property. Alfred Wellington Carter was the manager and trustee of the Parker Ranch from the early to mid-1930s until his death in 1949. Carter is credited with the founding of Pu’ukikoni Dairy, and would only use cows with pedigrees with at least 3 generations.

The actual cattle trade was a very intricate business and came with its own ups and downs. With the great depression beginning in 1929, the price of beef dropped and people kept applying for jobs on the ranch because there was a scarcity of jobs. The Parker Ranch stopped making money in the 1960s under the management of Radcliffe Greenwell and Richard Smart, who was the last remaining heir to the Parker Ranch, returned from a career in theater and took over the family business. Smart cared about the people on the ranch very much and began publishing a monthly ranch newspaper from 1960 to 1970.

In the paper there was a column called “Aloha ‘Aina” and Smart used this column to express concern and pride in the community. Hawaiian ranches were very closely knot communities and they treated each other like ohana, which means family, but not in the common sense of the word. An ohana is a family through thick and thin and they do not need to be related by blood or marriage to care for their own.

Drought and rising costs of production lead many ranchers to sell parts of their land that were not good for grazing. This was a very tough decision for many, and the lands sold were often used for different kinds of farming like coffee, pineapples, and papayas. Other lands were sold to businessmen like Lawrence Rockefeller, who purchased the Mauna Kea property in 1963, and Boise Cascade and signal company, who purchased the Anaeho’omalu property in 1969. While selling these lands was a very tough decision to make, it was for the best to keep the original ranch going.

Many traditions were established at the Parker Ranch, a few being a boy scout troop and yearly horse races and a rodeo held on the 4th of July thanks to the U.S. Marine Corps. During World War II Smart leased some acreage of the Ranch to the Marine Corps who set up Camp Tarawa. Here the marines trained for attacks on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The Camp was open from 1943 until 1945, and 55,000 lived there, and their camp launched Waimea into the twentieth century. The marines brought advancing technology and medical advancements.

The paniolo cowboys of Hawaii were a very unique group of people who were native to an area and rather than giving into settler colonialism and having the Europeans eradicate their way of life, they adapted and molded their cultures together along with the Mexican vaqueros. They created new traditions and practices of ranching and the cattle trade to meet their needs and modify tactics to accommodate their tropical terrain and obstacles. The paniolo history is a rich and vibrant story that needs much more investigation.


Cite this paper

Paniolo Cowboys of Hawaii. (2021, Jun 26). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/paniolo-cowboys-of-hawaii/

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